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The Difference Between Night Terrors and Nightmares



Child having a nightmare

As your trusty sleep specialist, I'm here to shed some light on these spooky sleep disturbances that every parent will experience at some point. But is it a night terror or a nightmare? In this post, I unravel the difference between the two.



Night Terrors: The Midnight Madness


Let's kick things off with night terrors. Picture this: Your little one is peacefully snoozing away when suddenly, they sit bolt upright in bed, eyes wide like they've seen a ghost. They might scream out, thrash around, or appear completely disoriented.


Night terrors might seem like something straight out of a horror movie, but they're best described as more like a glitch in the sleep matrix. Unlike nightmares, which occur during REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, night terrors happen during non-REM sleep stages, usually within the first few hours of falling asleep up until midnight.


So, what exactly are night terrors?


Well, think of them as your child's brain throwing a party while their body's still catching some Zzzs. These episodes are often brief, lasting anywhere from a few seconds to a few minutes, and your little one might not even remember them come morning. It's like a sleep-time blip, and while it can be unsettling for parents, rest assured that your kiddo will likely go back to dreamland without skipping a beat.


Nightmares: The Dreamy Drama


Nightmares on the other hand the bedtime dramas that leave your child feeling like they just starred in their own spooky movie. You know the drill: Your little one wakes up in the dead of night, clutching their blankie for dear life and insisting that there's a monster under the bed.


Unlike night terrors, nightmares occur during REM sleep, the stage where dreams run wild and unicorns dance in technicolor, occurring from midnight into the early hours of the morning. These vivid dreams can be triggered by a variety of factors, from scary stories, screen time to sugary snacks before bed.


While nightmares might cause a few midnight shivers, they're a normal part of childhood sleep and often a sign that your little one's imagination is in full bloom.


Tips and Tricks


Now that we've demystified the difference between night terrors and nightmares, let's talk survival tactics!


Keep Calm


Remember, both night terrors and nightmares are common in childhood and usually nothing to worry about. Stay calm, soothe your little one with gentle reassurance, and try not to wake them abruptly. Terrors are usually more unsettling for the parents, but just ensure your child is safe from injury, and don't mention it to them in the morning as they will be unaware that it's happened. Nightmares require reassurance and TLC, and a night-light can help here so they can see around the room for comfort.


Avoid The Spooky Stories


Keep an eye on your child's daytime activities and bedtime habits to minimise the chances of nighttime frights. Opt for calming activities before bed, limit screen time, and steer clear of spooky stories right before lights out.


Seek Support


If night terrors or nightmares become a frequent visitor in your child's sleep routine, don't hesitate to reach out to your friendly seep specialist (aka me!) or your GP. Together, we'll tackle those night-time dragons and banish them to the land of dreams where they belong.


If you’re struggling with anything related to your baby or toddlers sleep, please don’t hesitate to reach out here.



*any advice given is general in nature, please consult with your health professional for further clarification.


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